Mudbound is like Giant, a sprawling American epic, warts and all about the hardships of life in the WWII era south. It’s farming instead of oil, and with more racial tensions. It is a reminder that even though things may be bad now, they used to be even worse, even though there’s still much work to be done for equality.
The McAllen family starts a farm in Mississippi just when the U.S. enters WWII, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) enlists in the Air Force while Henry (Jason Clarke) marries Laura (Carey Mulligan) and works the farm. He finds he needs the help of the African-American family who rents a house from Henry. Working with the Jackson family illuminates the racial tensions of 1940s Mississippi, especially with Henry’s racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks).
Each of the characters has a meaningful struggle, except for Pappy. Pappy is just racist and stubborn but bravo to Banks for going there. The struggle of returning veterans is universal and black soldiers and pilots still had to deal with racism on top of that. You can give your life for our country but if you make it back we’re still going to abuse you.
Henry’s struggle with the farm is stark. It makes me grateful that I have other means of income and most of us have options in modern day. For him it was farming or bust. And the Jackson family helping him have their own problems. They just need to earn a living, but Henry keeps needing more and more help. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) has to go above and beyond, just to keep his basic job.
Mudbound is a long immersive experience. You lose track of the farm focusing on different characters, then oh yeah they’re still trying to grow crops. It’s ambitious to encompass so much hardship and atrocity. The KKK even shows up by the end. In a way it feels like it wants to be a miniseries but has to settle for being a single movie.
Individual scenes end up standing out more than the overall plot. By the end some characters may not have made it but it still feels less definitive and more just the struggle continues. It’s in individual moments that you see Henry pressured to tolerate Pappy’s behavior, Hap trying to work through an injury, Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) abused by lazy old white men after he’s back from war, Laura trying to hold the house together and being a mentor to other wives.
The WWII scenes are limited. We mostly see Jamie in the cockpit of his bomber, but there are a few aerial shots. It’s not entirely necessary, not just because the budget is too limited. But Mudbound is not a war movie. It can leave the horrors of war to a different movie and focus on its homeland story.
Mudbound is designed to be a sobering reminder of our past and it succeeds at creating that. Let’s hope the people who need to see it will get the message.